Ocean-Friendly Sun Protection: Sunscreen & Supplements

September 09, 2021

Ocean-Friendly Sun Protection: Sunscreen & Supplements

In this article:

  • Why reef-friendly sunscreen matters
  • What are the ingredients of a reef-friendly sunscreen?
  • A guide to finding the best reef-safe sunscreens
  • Sun protection supplements and diet
  • Top 5 reef-safe sunscreens of 2021

Why Reef-Friendly Sunscreen Matters

Ask any dermatologist, skincare fanatic, or that person you know who looks 20 years younger than their true age what their secret is and they'll likely have the same answer -- sunscreen. We know the sun damages and ages skin more than any other factor. Because the sun can penetrate the deepest layers of the dermis, every skin type and pigment is susceptible to photoaging, but it can manifest differently. For example, those with pale skin may develop sunburn, blisters, and even skin cancer. Those with darker skin tones are more likely to develop melasma, but are also susceptible to skin cancer.

UVA rays can damage the skin at all levels, from the surface layer (epidermis) down deep into the dermis. UVB rays are more likely to damage DNA in the epidermis and can cause photoaging and precancerous cells to form. Even if you aren't hanging out poolside, sunscreen is a must, even in winter. As our options for sunscreen products continue to grow, we're learning more about which forms, ingredients, and SPF levels are safest and most effective for the skin and our waterways.

A 2012 report by Marine Safe found that as many as 82,000 different chemicals and up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen end up in the ocean per year. These chemicals are slowly and steadily bleaching coral reefs and killing marine ecosystems. Sunscreens containing the ingredients PABA, octocrylene, oxybenzone, and octinoxate can damage the human body and oceans in the following ways:

  • May lead to cancer and developmental abnormalities
  • Is an endocrine disruptor
  • Causes coral deformities
  • Leads to coral reef bleaching

Sunscreen sprays also disperse these harmful ingredients on the land and can contaminate the sand.

The damage has become so widespread that certain countries and US states, such as Hawaii, have prohibited the sale of sunscreens made with oxybenzone and octinoxate altogether. Other island nations such as Palau, Bonaire, and Aruba have followed suit with this legislation in the fight against climate change.

Reef-Safe Sunscreen Ingredients

Despite all the concern chemical sunscreens have caused, dermatologists agree daily sunblock use is still an absolute must. Thankfully, reef-safe natural sunscreens are an eco-friendly and effective alternative. The active ingredients in mineral-based sunscreens, also referred to as natural sunscreens, cannot penetrate the skin and cause endocrine disruptions. And don't worry, modern sunscreens won't leave a thick white cast on your skin either!

  • Non-nano zinc oxide is a gentle, anti-inflammatory, reef-friendly sunscreen ingredient you will find in many mineral sunscreens. It is considered to be a broad spectrum product, meaning it protects against both UVA and UVB rays. When shopping for a zinc sunscreen, you'll want to make sure it is labeled non-nano, meaning the particles are larger than 100 nanometers. Nanoparticles can penetrate the skin barrier and enter the bloodstream. They can also contribute to acidifying the water. Non-nano ensures the particles will not penetrate the skin. Also, rather than dissolving, they will settle amongst the ocean sediment as you wade out into the waters.
  • Non-nano titanium dioxide is another popular, mineral, UV-blocking ingredient. However, when compared to zinc oxide, titanium dioxide is not quite as good at protecting against both kinds of UV rays. However, titanium dioxide is very gentle on the skin and is a great choice for those with sensitive skin.

When it comes to sunscreen SPF, more isn't always more. At least not linearly! SPF 40 does not offer double the protection of SPF 20. According to Very Well Health:

  • SPF 15 blocks 93% of UVB rays
  • SPF 30 blocks 97% of UVB rays
  • SPF 50 blocks 98% of UVB rays
  • SPF 100 blocks 99% of UVB rays

A Guide to Finding the Best Reef-Safe Sunscreens

Need some advice on how to choose a sunscreen lotion? Many online retailers, such as Amazon, have a wide variety of safe, mineral sunscreens. To help you narrow down your options, here's a quick "checklist" to keep handy as you browse through the personal care aisle or online:

  • Look for the ingredients “non-nano zinc oxide” and “titanium dioxide”.
  • ​Choose unscented to avoid exposing your body and the ocean to unnecessary and potentially harmful ingredients.
  • Choose sunscreen cream over sprays.
  • Get a face sunscreen that is oil-free to avoid breakouts.
  • Make sure it is free of parabens such as methyl paraben, butyl paraben, and phenoxyethanol.
  • Bonus points if the brand specifies it has undergone FDA testing for water resistance of 80 minutes or more. Sport sunscreens like this one made by Babo Botanicals are formulated with reef-safe, mineral ingredients that can withstand the water and waves.
  • Bonus points if it contains natural moisturizers like aloe vera.
  • Extra bonus points if the brand is plastic neutral, uses biodegradable packaging, and/or uses reusable plant-based materials to package and ship their product. (Check out the Avasol Surfer’s Barrier Stick 50 SPF packaged in a cardboard tube!)

Many dermatologists agree that a water-resistant, mineral sunscreen lotion with SPF 30 or SPF 35 should do! Just remember to reapply every hour or so, especially if you are swimming.  

Sun Protection Supplements and Diet

Protecting skin from the "outside-in" is not the only way to ensure your skin is sunburn-proof. Certain vitamin and mineral supplements may be able to reduce sun damage when used alongside daily sunscreen use. These supplements are NOT a substitute for sunscreen. Instead, they may help to protect your skin from further damage.

  • Vitamin B3: A 2015 study found that 500mg twice daily of nicotinamide (vitamin B3) reduced skin cancer by 23% and reduced precancers by 13%. Vitamin B3 has many different total-body benefits, so adding this vitamin to your diet may support many of your long-term health goals, as well as protecting against sun damage.
  • Polypodium leucotomos: Polypodium leucotomos is a fern from Central and South America that has long been used to reduce sunburn. It can often be found in pill form and has no known side effects.
  • Milk thistle: A 2013 study found that silibinin, a component of milk thistle, protects against UV-induced skin cancer.
  • Aspirin: Interestingly, a 2021 study found taking aspirin "can protect against UVB-induced inflammation in skin and reduce UVB-induced DNA damage in both melanocytes and keratinocytes."
  • Glutathione: Glutathione is the body's most powerful antioxidant and may help to decrease swelling, discoloration and inflammation caused by sun exposure. Some data suggests glutathione "provides the epidermis with measurable protection against injury from low or moderate UVB doses." While it's no substitute for sunscreen, it may support your anti-aging, summer skincare routine and detox ;).
  • Vitamin D: Vitamin D is a crucial vitamin produced when the skin is exposed to sunlight. Many people also believe using sunscreen can lead to vitamin D deficiency. However, you can spare yourself the sunburn by taking a vitamin D3 supplement daily.
  • Vitamin C: Some people ''mega dose" with vitamin C to help prevent sunburn. Data suggests antioxidant vitamin C may reduce DNA damage caused by UV radiation when used with vitamin E. Liposomal vitamin C supplements are widely regarded as the most bioavailable form of vitamin C on the market. One 5 ml serving of Amandean's liquid liposomal vitamin C delivers 1000 mg or 1667% of your daily value.

Say goodbye to cakey, white sunscreens that clog your pores and bleach coral reefs. Whether your skin-prep starts once you've staked your spot on the sand, or you've been preparing with daily supplementation for weeks, there are plenty of skin-safe and reef-safe alternatives that can protect your skin from the sun without interfering with marine life.

Top 5 Reef-Safe Sunscreens of 2021

Ready to start your hunt for the reef-safe and skin-smart sunscreen? We did the work for you! Here are our top 5 reef-safe sunscreens to carry you through summer and the rest of the year!

  1. Countersun Daily Sheer Defense For Face – SPF 25: This lightweight and non-greasy facial sunscreen is formulated with non-nano zinc oxide. It contains vitamin E to protect your skin from aging free radicals to preserve your skin’s glow even after stepping out of the sun.
  2. People4Ocean (P4O) SPF50+ Sunscreen Sport: People4Ocean is fighting against coral reef bleaching by creating delicate and reef-friendly sunscreens that rival their chemical counterparts. For every dollar spent with P4O, they donate to reef conservation initiatives worldwide. What’s not to love?
  3. WOTNOT Sunscreen SPF 30: This reef-friendly formulation was made for those with sensitive skin, even your little ones! It’s organic, moisturizing, and nourishing with natural oils and non-nano zinc oxide. Pack some for your little swimmer and use some for yourself too!
  4. MD Solar Sciences Mineral Crème SPF 50: Looking for a lightweight matte sunscreen to wear every day rain or shine? This sheer broad spectrum formula uses a blend of titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, and vitamin C to prevent sunburn and photoaging even after you wash it away. All that with a beautiful matte finish!
  5. Thinksport Safe Sunscreen SPF 50+: This long-lasting yet lightweight sunscreen was designed with athletes, outdoor enthusiasts, and sun-soakers in mind. It’s award-winning, biodegradable formula packs in SPF 50+, is water-resistant for up to 80 minutes, and is safe for daily use.

Summary Points

  • A 2012 report by Marine Safe found that as many as 82,000 different chemicals and up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen end up in the ocean per year
  • Non-nano zinc oxide is a gentle, anti-inflammatory, reef-friendly sunscreen ingredient you will find in many mineral sunscreens
  • Compared to zinc oxide, titanium dioxide is not quite as good at protecting against both kinds of UV rays
  • Make sure that your sunscreen is free of parabens such as methyl paraben, butyl paraben, and phenoxyethanol
  • Many dermatologists agree that a water-resistant, mineral sunscreen lotion with SPF 30 or SPF 35 should do
  • Glutathione is the body's most powerful antioxidant and may help to decrease swelling, discoloration and inflammation caused by sun exposure




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